5 days of living in a fantasy world.
Drachenfest is an annual LARP festival every July in Northen Germany, in Diemelstadt, near Kassel. The name essentially means the Dragons’ festival and the background story is all about dragons (right up my alley!). It’s organised by Wyvern and has an accompanying sister-festival Zeit der Legenden happening at the end of May.
Disclaimer: this will likely be one of my longest blog posts ever, because Drachenfest is 5 days of pure awesomeness and I wanted to do it justice. If you don’t want to read through so much text, just scroll through to the photos, I promise they’re worth seeing.
Drachenfest lasts for 5 days, with 4 full in-game days of LARPing. What is LARPing you may ask? I wrote a separate in depth post about it here, but in essence, LARP, which stands for live-action-roleplaying, is an activity where you dress up as a made-up character and participate in quests, i.e. play that character during an organised event with a background story frame and an appropriately decorated setting. It is based on improvisation and immersing yourself into an imaginary world, which all players co-create with their actions. Since Drachenfest is such a unique event full of fantastical details, I figured it would be best to tell this story in pictures – I don’t normally have my phone on me during LARP events, but I made an exception in 2019, because I was waiting for an important call. Obviously I cannot fit the whole 5 days into one blog post, but I’ll try to give you a feel for it. If you want suitable musical background, here’s two songs that always bring back the Drachenfest vibe for me: 1 and 2.
There were 4 of us going to the 2019 edition of Drachenfest and we drove overnight about a 1000 kilometers from Slovenia to Germany, with one fully packed car. As you can see in the photos below, we really filled the car and the roof box to the last centimetre with all of our LARP gear and we still had to leave some things at home. I still can’t believe we managed to fit in as much as we did…
Off we go!
The backstory of Drachenfest goes that once a upon a time the dragons created the world and ended up fighting over it to the point of destroying it. So, they created another one and decided to settle their differences by hosting a tournament where the warriors from each dragon camp fight the other camps in order to win the Drachenfest tournament for their chosen dragon. The players get to decide which dragon they feel called to, based on the dragon’s attributes, and join the respective camp.
Each camp has their own colour, an ideal or path (der Weg des Drachens) that the dragon represents and also their own camp words, i.e. a slogan. It’s a bit like the family words from the Game of Thrones and it’s one of the best ways they’ve thought of to unite the players in each camp, since every camp is essentially full of strangers who’ve never met before.
In short, the dragons and their ideals are: Blue (freedom and free will – essentially pirates), Gold (justice and rightness), Silver (grace and courage – essentially paladins), Black (death, power and the end of everything – mostly power-hungry mages, but not officially evil), Green (nature and life cycle – super family friendly camp), White (faith and devotion – the most recently founded camp, in-game religious fanatics), Red (war, relentless fighting – OP fighters), Grey (knowledge – small, scholarly, but fierce camp), Copper (order and discipline – NPC players) + the camp of Alteration/Eternal Change (ex chaos and everything weird) and the Orc camp. It is of course much more complicated than that, since Drachenfest has a whole lot of lore and mythical history to support its backstory and allow for all the quests etc., but you get the idea.
Copper is the dragon boss, fully committed to order and discipline, and the rest of the dragons are her (his?) children. That’s why Copper camp is an NPC camp, where players must follow certain rules and participate in all activities. Players in other camps are free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, within the rules of course. There are GMs (Game Masters, i.e. referees) with red hats present at all times to enforce the rules and help guide the game. The Orc camp is also an NPC camp and is the only one with costume standards. Players who wish to join the Orc camps must pass a strict orc costume check, because trust me, some of those guys could be extras in the Lord of the Rings movies. Here is a video of the orcs marching through the town – encounters with orcs always get your heart pumping, even though you know it’s all a game…
The entire concept of Drachenfest is pretty developed and there are players, mages in particular, who have spent years building upon the lore and untangling all aspects of it, but most of that is in German. Because yes, Drachenfest is a German LARP festival and even though they’ve been trying increasingly hard to accommodate international players in English, the more complex stuff is only accessible in German. To be honest, I think that’s fair, since there’s about 5000 players attending the festival each year and we the internationals are guests there + it adds another aspect to the game.
Every camp also has a dragon representative or an Avatar and the in-game time or in-time (IT) starts with an Opening ceremony (you can see a video here), where each Avatar is summoned into the ritual circle to answer that year’s challenge in the name of their dragon. It also ends with the Closing ritual, where the winner is announced and their year begins.
Anyhow, we chose the Black camp for the second year
in a row (we also went in 2017), which officially represents the end of everything and the knowledge found in the shadows (the Black camp description can be found here, but it is of course in German).
Ich rufe in diesen Kreis, um sich dem Streit zu stellen:
Den, der das Ende der Dinge ist. Den, der im Schatten Weisheit erkennt. Den, der immer sucht und vieles weiss.
Ich rufe den Schwarzen Avatar!
I call in this circle to answer the Challenge:From the Drachenfest Opening ritual, loosely translated.
The One who the end of everything is, the One who finds knowledge in the Shadows, the One who always seeks and knows many things.
I call the Black Avatar!
It may sound evil and shady, but in reality the camp is a bit more scholarly and power hungry. It’s full of mages dabbling in the arcane arts, illusions and mysticism, who are officially not necromancers. Our words were “Alles muss enden! Alles wird enden!” (Everything must end! Everything will end!) and “Für Macht und Sieg!” (For power and victory! yes, rather unfortunate in German, I know). The first year I went to Drachenfest in 2016, we went to the Green camp and although it was also a good experience, the Black camp has one huge advantage: it is small.
Since there aren’t that many people, you can more easily get involved in all the major camp activities, like the Gate watch, the Magic Guild and fighting units etc. You can of course do that in all the camps, but if the camp is bigger, there’s often too many people vying for the same in-game positions and it can take years to worm your way into the community, especially if you are an international player. However, we seemed to fit in quite well with the Blacks, particularly because we had very useful neighbours who kept inviting us to take a guard shift at the Gates or join them in the sieges and battles with other camps. They also kept us informed, which was nice, as I usually act as the translator with my less than adequate German at the camp meetings (Lagerversammlungen) and some things end up flying past us. We also got quite involved with the Magic Guild again (I got to participate in a fancy magic ritual again, this time in a more active role) and one of my friends ended up carrying a dragon egg for the Avatar, which is a huge in-game honour (perks of a small camp, yo!).
Besides the Avatar the camps also have a General, a Diplomat, a Head Mage and a Spy Master. They are regular players, which get elected at the first camp meeting every year and the election method depends on the camp. The Black camp has a rather interesting approach where all candidates for the position must agree on one amongst themselves (the method of last-one-standing-after-killing-all-the-others also counts, since the Blacks value power).
You can see our little campsite in the photos below. We were camped in the first line of the Black camp, quite close to the Gates. Each camp has a huge wooden gate, which is an actual construction with a gatehouse, a tower and the palisades, that awesome volunteers build on site a few days before the festival. In fact, the whole site of Drachenfest is just a giant lawn and everything is built anew every year, which is a very impressive feat. The Gates need to be defended as other camps can attack you and try to steal your banner, which is important for game reasons. Camps can also make alliances with each other.
Now, the goal of the game is not so much to win as to participate and play your character. As already explained in the “What is LARP?” post, all players co-create the game and in events such as Drachenfest, also the environment. Since everything is built from scratch every year, it is important that the players have proper equipment, like medieval tents, cookingware etc., or the camps would not look half as impressive (there’s also an area further back for people without proper tents, but that’s no fun). The same goes for costumes, as it is kind of hard to immerse yourself into a fantasy world, if someone is walking around in jeans and sneakers. So, most of us who spend too much time and money on this LARP stuff bring several outfits for our characters and there’s tons of shops in the in-game town, but more on that later.
My character’s name was Fede and she was a rather cynical illusion mage with slightly flexible morals. Over the course of the festival she also got a bit too into fighting (although the fighters of the Black camp were few in numbers, they were hilarious and actually made all the lengthy battles fun), so she kind of multi-classed into a battle mage. Good thing there’s no such thing as classes in LARP and that your character is only loosely defined by a character sheet specifying their skills, spells etc. Since Drachenfest is such a dynamic event with so much going on, I find it’s better to keep my character a bit fluid, although some of my friends don’t agree and prefer to set themselves more rigid limits regarding their in-game persona.
Outfit of the day
Since the goal is participation and the whole point of going is the actual experience of LARPing, here’s a bit of what you can do at Drachenfest:
- Battles: you can join a battle unit, train with them, go to countless battles, gate sieges and skirmishes, either because you enjoy fighting, for the glory of the camp or to support your allies. You can also do that if you don’t join a unit and just go whenever you feel like it or your camp needs extra people – always in our case.
- Magic, alchemy, lore exploration etc.: there are many player groups and actual guilds in each camp who exclusively play characters, which spend their whole time working on magic theory, mixing potions and learning the intricacies of lore. It is all pretty well defined by game mechanics and there are always GMs on site to help out.
- Quests: every camp has some main quests as given by the Avatar and there are also many less important quests for guilds, town organisations or purely for your own character development and enjoyment. Some quests yield dragon eggs, which are important for the game, as they count towards winning, so eggs are also often traded amongst the camps.
- New skills: you can take organised fighting/magic/history etc. classes at the schools in town if you want to develop your character, but you can also actually learn new skills, such as blacksmithing, woodworking, calligraphy, cooking etc.
As you can see there’s quite a lot to do and this honestly hasn’t even scratched the surface. Everything is pretty complex in terms of details and can be overwhelming, but the actual out-of-game mechanics of it are quite simple and easy to learn. Even the battles can get quite complex, as people bring functioning siege weapons and golems and get super deep into tactics.
At this point you might be wondering what happens if you die, since the festival does last 5 days. Well, there’s Limbus, a giant shadowy haunted labyrinth, where dead characters’ souls go for a chance to return to the land of the living. All dead fighters neatly line up at the entrance and are given a tiny soul light, which they have to safely bring to the exit. However, there are creatures and other players who have lost their lights prowling the corridors of Limbus, so the whole thing can take a while, if it’s not crowded. You are also given a death quest, which changes every time. The Limbus tent is an oven during the hot summer days though, so it’s worth dying early in the day… The other option is the Gardens of Eternal Twilight, which I haven’t tried yet, or trusting one of the necromancers that lurk around the entrance to Limbus, which may or may not end well.
If your character is killed during a ritual, they stay dead forever. Similarly, in the final battle (die Endschlacht, i.e. the Apocalypse), which takes place at the end of the festival, lasts several hours and is essentially all camps against each other, the dead characters just move to the sides to watch, as the festival is effectively over. Here’s some videos of the Endschlacht to give you a feel for how huge Drachenfest really is: 1, 2, 3.
Battles and sieges
If you’re still here, we’ve finally gotten to what I personally consider the most impressive part of Drachenfest. Every year the German LARP community builds a whole in-game town from scratch and trust me, it’s pretty big. The town is called Aldradach and it has everything a town should have. It features many LARP-related shops (OK, they actually make money from being there, but the rest of the in-game institutions are run and built by volunteers), a Post Office, a Newspaper Office, the Town Hall, the City watch, a Prison, a Casino, a Brothel called Vitalium, the Magic Guild with a Magic school, the Fighter’s Guild with a fighting Arena, the Temple of dragons, the Caravanseray (Arabic-inspired shisa and pillows tea place), the Tribes’ market and camp, the Dwarven quarter, a Bakery, several taverns (the Thirsty Dagger is the pirate one with the best mead), a Blacksmith, the Healer’s guild (complete with experiments on patients), a Scribe, a Goblin photographer, a Bank, a Dating Agency, a general School, a Tea house, a Massage parlour and the Colonies (a community of free artists and craftsmen, which only take in-game money as payment). There are also beggars, who have their own little corner, hot tubs, child care, food vendors with ice cream and a fancy restaurant and probably many other things, which I’ve forgotten to mention. The town changes every year, depending on how many groups manage to attend the festival, so it’s always a new experience. P.S. The hill above Aldradach is where the out-of-game toilets and showers are located, although each camp has their own water source and portable toilets.
The town of Aldradach
As you can imagine, nightlife is a huge part of the experience and the 8 a.m. battles are usually not very numerously attended. There’s a huge field separating all the camps and the town, which is a neutral zone that needs to be navigated, if you want to go out for a beer in the tavern. Orcs and other weird creatures come out at night, when the temperatures are more heavy-costume-friendly, and the paranoid, wild dash into town is one of my favourite parts of the experience. The players that remain out and about late at night are usually the most fun to play with, as they are always up for stupid shenanigans and don’t take themselves too seriously, so I’ve had some very fun encounters out on the field.
There are several taverns serving mead wine and killer cocktails in town and the prices are pretty friendly for Germany + there’s always lots of private parties in the camps or the town that you can end up getting invited to. Since LARP is a creative activity, there are also tons of performers hanging around the taverns and usually there’s live music, dancing and fire shows almost every night, so it’s never boring. The pirates are particularly good at nightlife, as well as the Colonies, which hold a Festival of Lights on one of the nights each year, where they decorate their town camp with thousands of tiny lights and basically hold one massive party.
And so, we’ve made it to the end of this gigantic post! Also, the Red dragon won in 2019, but the Black did quite well too. If you’ve made it this far, you’re either very bored at work/sitting on the toilet or should definitely try LARPing. I hope I’ve managed to give you a glimpse into the fantastical madness that is the Drachenfest LARP festival and I also wrote some more in-game stories here. You can always find more photos and videos online if it caught your interest. Let me know your reactions in the comments. 🙂
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